On the morning of 6th June 1944, frantic communications were being relayed from Normandy. A colossal armada had appeared out of the early morning mist and those stationed within the miles of coastal defences readied themselves for a battle that would shape the Second World war. The formidable Allied D-Day landings, the largest ever amphibious assault, was about to hurl itself against Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
It’s easy to look back on this event with the comforting hindsight that the Allies did prevail and that the fearsome coastal defence that had been constructed over a 2,687 km (1,670 miles) length was quickly breached, but as soldiers began clambering into the landing crafts, pitching and tossing in the rough seas, it was far from a given.
The fact that the Allies were able to crack the Atlantic Wall so soon, had more to do with their overwhelming numbers, an enormous deception plan and plenty of luck, than simply the failings of a system that Adolf Hitler had hoped would be able to keep his western border secure. This wasn’t so much David vs Goliath, as Goliath vs Goliath, with the two ideologically opposed armies crashing into each other on the beaches of Normandy.
All Quiet on the Western Front
As the British limped home from Dunkirk after the debacle that had become the Allied defence of France, Hitler must have experienced a wide variety of emotions. No doubt there was some anger that around 338,000 British troops were able to escape from the beaches of northern France, but perhaps quelled by the knowledge that his rampage across Europe was almost complete. The speed and ease at which the German Wehrmacht had swept across the continent must have taken even the Fuhrer by surprise, but as the British disappeared across the English Channel, Hitler must have considered what would come next.
Much has been said about Hilter’s intentions to invade Britain and how far the planning actually went. Certainly, Operation Sea Lion called for the amphibious invasion of Britain after the Luftwaffe had battered the RAF into submission, but it was also clear that Hitler hoped that by squeezing the island nation he might be able to bring them to the negotiating table.
The other scenario that Hitler no doubt toyed with in the weeks and months after the fall of France, was of the British one day returning to the European mainland. At that point, Britain was the equivalent of an ageing boxer staggering into the 12th Round, but one that was still capable of landing terrific blows. Not only could she call on her vast Empire for assistance, but there was also the question of her American friends across the pond.
As war turned into occupation, and the fighting on the western front all but ceased, Hitler needed to make some decisions.
The Battle of Britain
There was no doubt Hitler was on a high after the fall of Paris – and no I don’t just mean the huge amounts of methamphetamine running through German leaders’ veins. Whether he always fully intended to launch the ambitious invasion of Britain or not, he certainly authorised the early stages.
What came next had two elements that briefly overlapped. The Battle of Britain was a three-month military campaign fought exclusively in the skies above Britain or the English Channel as the RAF bravely met wave after wave of Luftwaffe attack. The British came close, but just about held on, with the Germans eventually switching to attacking civilian populations, a period known as the Blitz that lasted between September 1940 and May 1941.
As summer dawned in 1941, Britain remained defiantly standing, albeit wobbling as you do after a pleasing evening in the pub. The British were bruised and battered but Hitler’s plan to either break their spirit or force them into peace negotiations had failed. And while Uncle Sam remained technically neutral, the vast amounts of good flooding into Britain from the U.S left little doubt as to where U.S President Franklin D Roosevelt really stood. It was around this stage that Hitler’s western ambitions seemed to switch to defence, rather than offence.
A Long Border
Defending any border can be tricky, but try defending a border that stretched from the Bay of Biscay, where France and Spain meet, all the way up the frigid northern extremities of Norway, just south of the Arctic Circle. Along the way, it passed through Brittany, Normandy and Calais before wrapping around the coasts of Belgium, Holland and Denmark. It also included the British Channel Islands which had been invaded on 30th June 1940 and wouldn’t be liberated until VE Day on 9th May 1945 – nearly a year after the Normandy landings.
It was a staggering distance to try and reinforce, but Adolf Hilter was nothing if not wildly ambitious bordering on the absolutely absurd.
The Channel Islands
The first major sections of what would go on to be the Atlantic Wall came not in mainland Europe but the British islands of Jersey and Guernsey, both of which lie significantly closer to France than to Britain. As I mentioned before, both had been invaded at the end of June 1940, but just two weeks later, the British launched Operation Ambassador, in which a group of commandos landed on Guernsey, aiming to both capture some German prisoners and cause damage to the island’s main airfield.
The operation itself was little more than a complete failure with only a portion of the commandos able to land, but it certainly piqued the interest of Adolf Hilter. After assessing the island’s defences, he quickly deemed them inadequate and extra men ordered in, along with plans to build a series of well-defended fortifications on both Guernsey and Jersey. Even though the idea of a great Atlantic Wall still hadn’t even been mentioned, these were the first steps in Hitler’s plan to fortify Europe.
Führer Directive No. 40
As dictators tend to be, Hitler was a big fan of directives. These sweeping commands were almost always military in focus and over six years he gave 74 such commands. These ranged from the general attack of Poland in 1939 to a directive issued on 19th March 1945, which has come to be known as the Nero Decree, ordering that German infrastructure be destroyed to slow the Allied advance.
But the directive we’re focused on here is No 40 issued on 23rd March 1942, which essentially called for the construction of the Atlantic Wall. Hitler’s vision was vast in scope and called for all of the major ports, including Cherbourg, Brest and Antwerp as well as submarine bases along the coast, to be heavily defended with great hulking fortifications.
In between these major hubs would be no less than 15,000 separate bunkers and gun emplacements which would be manned by around 300,000 troops. Make no mistake about it, that’s a lot of men, but when you consider the length of the proposed wall, it was never really going to be enough.
Building the Wall
The task of actually making Hitler’s fantasy a reality fell to Organisation Todt (OT), Nazi Germany’s civil and military engineering organisation that had been created back in 1933. I know we’re not in the habit of praising Nazis, but some of OT’s early work in building the German autobahn system was hugely impressive and if anybody could build the largest coastal defence system the world had ever seen, it was probably them.
Such a construction project required an astonishing number of workers and while OT was able to hire skilled workers who were paid well for their work, that’s only a fraction of the story. OT worked with a four-level system when it came to its “employees”, with the bottom group little more than slave labourers. Conditions and pay became a little better as you rose through the levels, but the overwhelming majority remained in the lower sections of this Nazi pyramid.
As many as 600,000 French civilians were drafted in to build the Atlantic Wall, working in both their homeland and neighbouring countries. What was built roughly followed the Regelbau System in which bunkers and fortifications were built to standardised dimensions. The first of these bunkers had been built in the 1930s opposite the French Maginot Line and now included over 600 approved types and shapes of bunkers and casemates each with specific purposes in mind. If IKEA did military bunkers, they would probably be a lot like this.
These standard features included how thick the walls were, the thickness of the steel doors, where the ventilation ducts were and where the emergency exit system was located, among just about everything else. This greatly sped up the production process as well as how quickly it could all be planned out. That being said, there were huge shortages and in many cases, equipment taken from French or other foreign armies were also used in the defence. Even turrets from obsolete tanks were spruced up and installed along the Atlantic Wall.
Considering the Great Wall of China had been constructed over roughly two centuries, Hitler knew things had to move quickly. But that was much easier said than done. Firstly the positions of the bunkers and casemates needed to be carefully chosen, often depending on how likely an allied invasion would be at that specific point.
Once the foliage was removed and the ground cleared, a sub-base made of compacted stones and pebbles was added, with a wooden form surrounding it. A cement mixer would then be brought in to begin laying the cement for the floor. Once the floor had hardened, further wooden frames were constructed that would act as moulds and more cement was added to construct the walls. Steel rebar poles were installed at the base of the walls to strengthen the structure and steel I-beams were placed horizontally within the roof mould.
The numbers here are fairly unbelievable. The Nazis used 1.2 million tons of steel on the Atlantic Wall, which is nearly 23 times the amount used on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Along with that was 17 million cubic metres (600 million cubic feet) of concrete. To give you a good idea about this, the New York Yankees had moved into Yankee Stadium nearly twenty years before in 1923. This was a great hulking ballpark and one of the largest stadiums in the world at the time. It was a colossal structure, but in terms of cement, it paled in comparison to the Atlantic Wall which used 1,100 times the amount of cement used in Yankee Stadiums.
In terms of cost, just the French section alone was said to have cost 3.7 billion Reichsmarks (roughly $208 billion today) although the true nature of the cost when you consider labour would have been far higher. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what the costs were for the entire wall, but a figure twice that that wouldn’t have seemed outrageous.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was a man whose legend preceded him. Known as the Desert Fox to the allies, Rommel had caused mayhem in the deserts of Northern Africa and was widely regarded as one of the finest German leaders – by both sides.
An illness had seen him relieved of duty in Africa, but in 1943 he was placed in charge of securing the Atlantic Wall and it’s fair to say his initial impression was far from flattering. Just a quick point before we move on, what is particularly interesting about the Atlantic Wall was the enormous disparity in confidence German leaders had in it. German propaganda, never one to shy away from caressing the ego of Adolf Hitler, relentlessly parroted the indestructible virtues of the Atlantic Wall. If you were living in Berlin at the time and only got your information through the Fuhrer Weekly – or whatever it was that had at the time – you’d be forgiven in thinking that the Germans had created some kind of Superfortress and that any Allied attempt on it would be doomed to failure from the very get-go.
On the ground, however, things were very different. Maybe Hitler was aware of this when he brought in the Desert Fox or maybe this was just another of his grand illusions that would soon or later unravel. When Rommel arrived on the wall he was dismayed by what he found and even wrote to a friend that the famed Atlantic Wall was,
“a figment of Hitler’s cloud-cuckoo-land … an enormous bluff … more for the German people than for the enemy.”
But being a diligent Field Marshall that he was, he threw himself into the job and construction along the line began to pick up steam. He reasoned that the Allies would be coming somewhere between Calais and the Somme estuary and so work was initially focused there but in general, the entirety of the Atlantic Wall was significantly strengthened under Rommel’s leadership.
As summer 1944 began, and with the massing of Allied troops in Britain now impossible to miss, the Germans knew that something was coming – but where? By now, the French coast had been heavily mined with nearly 6 million in position and thousands of metres worth of barbed wire slung along the beaches and around the defensive fortifications. There were also 13 railway guns, each well hidden but could be wheeled out and fired quickly before disappearing back into their camouflage. A total of more than 1,300 guns of 100mm (3.0 inch) calibre or larger now sat along the French coast, their barrels trained north.
Along with guns, there was a huge variety of obstacles designed to make an invasion as difficult as possible. Some of the most famous of these were the slanted poles that the Germans named Rommelspargel (Rommel’s Asparagus) which they hoped would prevent gliders and parachutists from landing in strategically important places. Rivers and estuaries were intentionally flooded with Rommel correctly believing that if the Germans stood any chance of defeating the Allies, they had to be defeated on the beaches.
Shortages had meant that the number of fortifications in Holland and Belgium was much less than planned and it seems that at this point, the Germans were pinning all of their hopes on a French landing – and one near Calais hopefully.
We’ve recently done an entire video on the D-Day landings so I don’t want to go over old information again, but if you’re interested in seeing the other side of this hellish struggle for western Europe, why not check out that video after.
As imperious as German propaganda had built up the wall to the German people, it would still require a huge slice of luck to succeed. Once it was clear that Normandy was the target and not Calais, however, the writing was on the wall – pun very much intended.
Now, I could sit here and regale you with several instances where the Allies really had to battle through the Atlantic Wall, but that probably wouldn’t be giving an entirely accurate version of events. What happened on Omaha Beach was nothing short of bloody carnage, but it was the exception to the rule.
The truth is that the Allies had effectively breached the Atlantic Wall within a few hours of landing. Rommel, who in hindsight probably shouldn’t have gone home for his wife’s birthday as the largest naval landing in history was gearing up, raced back to take command, but his premonition would prove to be right. The Atlantic Wall was in fact no wall at all, and once the Allies pushed back from the beaches, it was only a matter of time.
The Failed Wall
In terms of cost and time to build vs the time and ease in which it was breached, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall must go down in history as a dramatic failure. There was of course much more to the story than simply the wall. The Allied deception plan known as Operation Bodyguard – again a topic we’ve covered here on Megaprojects – kept the Germans guessing right up until the last moment. German reserves were kept near Calais expecting a second invasion until September 1944, three months after the Normandy landings.
The Atlantic Wall was rushed and in certain places even badly envisioned. This was Adolf Hitler’s hugely ambitious plan to fortify an astoundingly long coastline, which was probably always doomed to fail. While estimated casualty figures for D-Day were much higher than they actually were, it was an operation that hung in the balance for a short period.
But as you would have it, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall turned out to be more of a tower of cards than an impregnable barrier. Once the Allies punched through, it all quickly came crashing down.